I don’t know if calling “Cowboys & Aliens” a disappointment is fair. I really didn’t have high expectations for it, so when I came out of it feeling like I saw a decent movie, what I should feel is pleasantly surprised.
But there’s a lot of talent surrounding this film. And after attending Favreau’s “Visionaries” panel, which he shared with Guillermo del Toro, I really wanted this film to be excellent.
Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s not bad, but it’s certainly not great, and in the end I wound up wishing they had just made a straight up Western instead.
The movie opens with Craig waking up in the brush, wounded and with amnesia. He also has a large metallic device locked around his arm. A trio of riders come across him, and when they threaten to “Take him in”, Craig quickly proves what a bad ass he is. He staggers into a nearby town and it isn’t long before he gets into a confrontation with the belligerent son of the local Cattle Baron (Ford) and is taken into custody. Apparently there’s quite a price on his head. Prior to losing his memory, he was a baaaaad man.
Ford is playing a character you’ve seen a dozen times before. The cattle baron/land owner/mine owner/oil baron who has a stranglehold on a small town. I’m not sure that he brings anything new to that trope, but he’s Harrison Ford. He’s a huge movie star for a reason, he’s an engaging on-screen presence. And this is the best role he’s had in years. Ford’s demanding the release of his son (who’s also in the jailhouse from the run in with Craig), and that Craig’s character be turned over to him.
That’s when the spaceships start coming.
The small ships zip about the town, firing explosive bolts and harpooning townspeople, then whisking them up and off into the night sky. Meanwhile, it turns out that the device attached to Craig is a weapon of alien technology, and he manages to shoot down an alien craft with it.
Once the spaceships retreat, the townsfolk form a posse to retrieve their kidnapped loved ones. All differences are forgiven and they band together, tracking a wounded alien back towards the mothership.
I wouldn’t say that the movie goes off track here. I mean it IS “Cowboys & Aliens”. And I have no problem with the high concept. It’s kind of cool, definitely genre bending, so if it were done a little better, I could have really bought into it. I think the main reason the movie disappoints is that it devolves into an action movie, and yet none of the action is very memorable. It’s almost unfair to compare this movie to the other movies these stars have been in, since they were in some great, great movies. But there’s no parkour chase opening sequence, there’s no running from the rolling boulder, or asteroid field sequence. Once Craig is done beating people up and they start fighting against Aliens, all the action is kind of lame.
And the CGI is a bit spotty, too, which definitely doesn’t help.
You certainly can’t blame the cast for any shortcomings the movie has. This movie is loaded with talent. The flick is headlined by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, but on the team are Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano and Walton Goggins. None of them mail it in, they all get the most out of whatever part they’ve been given. In fact, in the hands of a lesser cast, this movie would have gotten a far worse grade. But its great watching Craig kick the shit out of people. And no one plays world-weary as well as Harrison Ford.
In the end, even though the characters are made by your standard issue “Western Movie Cookie Cutter,” I wound up wishing I could have seen the cast play their given roles all the way through a full Western, as opposed to getting caught up with these boring, nondescript aliens.